Readings Genesis 2.18-24; Mark 10.2-16
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
This morning we had fun with Harvest Festival. Tonight, darker stuff. Harvest can be dark too – I was talking to a colleague from Cheshire who said that the Harvest services in his rural churches have had to start with the reality that this year’s crop has been awful – but in tonight’s reading we get a taste of Jesus at his most shocking. Last Sunday morning’s gospel reading gave us: ‘If your hand makes you stumble, cut it off.’ Tonight’s follows straight on from that, and gives us this:
Anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery.
Now what kind of teaching is this? Is it the hand-chopping kind, which not even the most red-blooded Christian fundamentalist takes literally? Or is it the ‘Do-this-in-remembrance-of-me’ kind, which we follow (as far as we can, to the letter) whenever we celebrate Holy Communion?
Let’s note first that this is a Paxman moment. Jesus here is in a hostile interview, quizzed on a controversial topic in front of a large audience. In Jesus’ day, as in ours, some say that divorce is ‘too easy’, and Jesus is drawn into the debate, though here there may be a particular edge to it. The question, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ seems silly: everyone knows that it is, it’s in the law of Moses. But beware innocuous questions in hostile interviews.
The scene occurs, says Mark, by the river Jordan. John the Baptist had been operating there. Why is John not there now? Because he is dead, killed (Mark tells us) for airing his views on divorce and remarriage, specifically concerning Herodias, who left her husband, the brother of King Herod, and married Herod himself. This has scandalised many Jews, but criticism could be treason, so weigh your words, Jesus. He does. He takes everyone back to the book of Genesis (our first reading): divorce was not part of God’s first desire for men and women, but was permitted later because of the ‘hardness’ of human hearts. Jesus gets out of the trap, but then in private he is more explicit, and gives that hard teaching, that divorce plus remarriage equals adultery.
Now we can do the usual stuff to soften the blow. We can say that Jesus is ahead of his time in seeing women as equal partners in marriage, when many in his day do not, for recognising that wives can legitimately divorce husbands as well as the other way round, and that he applies the same ethical standards to men as to as to women. Even so, I suspect no-one sitting here tonight can hear his words without feeling a stab. Perhaps you’re divorced, or the person you love is divorced; and surely it has touched others who are close to you. I can think of four divorces and remarriages in my own close family. Is the Lord I love calling those people I love adulterers?
Some, no doubt, do end marriages casually or give up too easily. But for most, the act of putting asunder is not taken lightly or wantonly. It brings hurt and a sense of failure, as it did for someone I knew who refused every invitation to join our parish Mothers’ Union because she had married a divorcee; and this was barely a decade ago. So come on (we might say to Jesus), what do you mean? Is marriage after divorce really adultery? ‘Yes;’ he might reply, ‘and whenever you look lustfully at someone you don’t belong to, that’s adultery too. And I’ll tell you something else – that anger you feel for someone, that’s actually a kind of murder you are committing in your heart.’
All these shocking pronouncements are found in the gospels as part of the teaching of Jesus. And none of us can escape them. You look a reasonably decent bunch to me (from this distance) – indeed, you might be admired, looked up to – but we are all convicted by these words. Divorced or not, gay or straight, married, partnered, widowed, single; parents, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends… we know that all our relationships, all of them, are adulterated. We know that our hearts can be hard, and sometimes full of dark, even deadly things. And this was not God’s first desire for you, or for me.
Jesus here does not lay down policy for the church or the state. He shows us the gap between what you and I were created for and what we really are. Only when we stare, dismayed, across that chasm of unfulfilment, only then can we hear the good news, that Jesus’ God does not want to deal in punishment, but in grace, mercy and forgiveness; the good news that what Jesus calls the kingdom of God is at hand: a place of wonders, in which even human hearts can be softened; and mended.
Who is this Jesus, who can speak like this? A prophet? Well, yes, but – just as if you described Charles Darwin as a very good birdwatcher or Laura Trott as a keen cyclist – that hardly does him justice. To do that, you have to use ‘God’ language about him too. In Jesus, God gives us not just a prophet but a Son: the ‘imprint’ (the word in Hebrews 1.3) of God’s being; God’s own life embodied in a human life like yours like mine, enmeshed in the mess of the flesh.
This is what gives the early Christian movement such vitality. This is no new God they meet in Jesus. It is the same God their ancestors knew long ago. Yet this old, familiar God is doing a new thing, and they are coming to know God in a new way, all because of Jesus, the one in whom – incomprehensibly – two worlds overlap: the world of God, that infinity of love and generosity, and the world of hurt and gonewrong men and women, and children. This is not a riddle you solve, or a set of rules you obey, but a space you enter, where Jesus is: his kingdom, his place of wonders. It’s something you can’t get your head round, but it can make sense when you pray, and you enter that mystery in which it’s just you, and yet it’s God too.
It is that space we are in now, as we listen to the voice of God in Scripture, as we offer our prayer in the power of the Spirit; and we do all this in a certain setting. At Evensong we sing two ‘canticles’, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. They are scriptural Christmas carols, really. The first is the Song of Mary from Luke’s gospel, which she sings in response to the news of Jesus’ coming birth. The second is the Song of Simeon, and it comes at the moment in Luke when the baby Jesus is brought to the temple. This service of Evening Prayer is therefore cradled in the incarnation, God’s life embodied in Jesus, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.
With that birth comes a promise: that same life can be ours, rooted in the soil of your flesh and my blood; and among those whom we love and who share our lives, and despite all our failings, that life can bear a rich harvest.
If your hand makes you stumble… Mark 9.43.
Paxman The Newsnight presenter has rebutted the claim that he conducts interviews with politicians by asking himself, ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’
John the Baptist and Herodias Mark 6.17-29. For this possible interpretation of the quizzing of Jesus see Tom Wright’s Mark for Everyone,London, 2001, SPCK, pages 130-31.
Lust and adultery Matthew 6.27.
Anger and murder Matthew 6.21-22.